What do open rates really tell you about your program or your supporters? M+R Research Labs cracked the code!

We looked at five advocacy messages from four groups and compared the supporters who took action to those who were sent an email and were marked as having opened that message.

Of those who received an advocacy message and took action, 22% weren’t marked as opening the email. That means actual open rates are higher than the tracked open rates reported by most message reporting tools. These results are consistent with our previous findings, which have shown that 20% of the people who were sent an email and clicked on a link were not reported as having opened the message .

The bottom line? Open rates are not an accurate measure of how many people are opening your emails, but they are an accurate way to tell if MORE people are opening one email than another.

How does this happen?

Open rates are measured with a one-pixel image embedded in an email. When the email is opened, the image loads and the CRM marks that the email was opened. A number of email clients, including Gmail and Outlook, block images by default so this pixel doesn’t load when the email is opened. Because the image doesn’t load, the email isn’t counted as having been opened.

That’s also why an email message with a big graphic or a video screenshot will register more opens: recipients who have images blocked will allow images to see the graphic, which in turn means the tracking image loads and the email is marked as having been opened.

How should I use open rates?

Even though open rates are underreported, they’re still important to track. Here are three uses for tracking open rates:

  1. To compare current open rates to past open rates. The image blocking problem should affect open rates consistently over time, so you can see if more or fewer people are opening your emails.
  2. To test subject lines. If you’re running a subject line test, you can compare the open rate from two emails to see which had more opens.
  3. To gauge the effectiveness of an email message without links, such as a reminder email.

What else should I look for?

Ultimately, getting subscribers to open your email is just one step towards your goal. That makes open rate a useful statistic, but not your ultimate measure of success.

The best statistic is responses. Measure how many people did what you asked them to do, whether that’s take action or make a donation or read (and then share) your newsletter article.
Another useful statistic is click-throughs. If you’re looking for a statistic to complement responses, try click-throughs. In our 2010 Benchmarks study, we found that click-through rates correlate to response rates. Just be sure to also look at your page conversion rate, to make sure you’re making the most of all those interested clickers!

If you have questions or would like to discuss your organization’s online strategy, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.
Steve Peretz
Senior Analyst

M+R is dedicated to helping our clients advance their missions in order to bring about positive change. We do this by helping organizations and campaigns we believe in develop smart and effective strategies, hone their messages, mobilize their members, build grassroots support, raise money, and communicate effectively with the media, the public and decision-makers, both online and offline. www.mrss.com